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Oct 03, 2012

The Virginian-Pilot| by Mike Hixenbaugh

NORFOLK — Taking a cue from first lady Michelle Obama and her efforts to whip the nation’s children into shape, the Navy has launched a campaign to get sailors to eat healthier, exercise more often and quit smoking.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and top Navy and Marine Corps leaders came to Norfolk Naval Station on Tuesday to announce the initiative, which promotes healthy life choices through educational videos, brochures and seminars.

The program was modeled after the National Prevention Strategy, an educational campaign mandated under the federal health care overhaul and championed by the first lady and her husband. The program seeks to help Americans stay healthy at every stage of life.

“It doesn’t start when you step on a ship,” Benjamin told hundreds of sailors and health care professionals gathered in a hangar bay of the amphibious assault ship Bataan. “It starts at home. It starts when you’re a child. It starts in regular society.”

Never before have the Navy’s health priorities been so closely aligned with those of the federal government, said Rear Adm. Michael H. Mittelman, deputy surgeon general of the Navy.

After a decade of repeat deployments and extended sea assignments, Mittelman said, it’s time for sailors and Marines to pause and assess their health and lifestyles. The goal, he said, is to maintain the military’s most valuable asset — its people.

“These ships don’t move, the airplanes don’t fly, the submarines don’t go unless we have people to run them,” Mittelman said.

Although the Navy’s obesity rate is predictably well below the national average, one in four potential recruits is ineligible to join the Navy because they’re obese, Mittelman said. Declaring a “national crisis,” he said the Navy should lead the way by promoting healthier habits.

 The Navy has already made strides, said Capt. Michael Macinski, commanding officer of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, which developed the Health Promotion and Wellness program.

“Anybody who has been on ships over the last decade or two knows the difference between just having sliders and stuff and now having salad and fruit,” Macinski said, referring to the naval nickname for hamburgers.

Persuading a sailor to eat well and exercise is one thing. Persuading one to quit smoking is another. Despite past efforts to crack down, tobacco use continues to be a problem servicewide, officials said.

Navy officials say smoking contributes to poor health among active-duty sailors and retirees and drives up health care costs.

The educational campaign comes months after officials ended the long-established subsidy of cigarettes sold at base commissaries and exchanges. Smoking has been banned on submarines and at most naval health centers.

Although there are no plans to ban smoking on surface ships, Mittelman said he’d like to eventually see the Navy move in that direction. For now, he said, the goal is to persuade.

“Right now, we’re trying to get our young sailors and Marines to understand the implications of smoking, that it’s unhealthy, that it can affect their health downrange, that it’s expensive,” Mittelman said. “And if we can show them those things, we hope they’ll make the decision on their own to quit.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dianna Briggs said she hopes the campaign will convince sailors to give up smoking, but she’s not optimistic. Briggs, a 24-year-old engineer aboard the Bataan, said half the sailors in her shop smoke to relieve stress or socialize while on deployment, and she has often been tempted to join them.

“It’s almost like peer pressure,” Briggs said after the ceremony. “Most of the guys I work with go up to smoke, and they’ll ask if I want to come along. It’s a way to break up the monotony.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dylan Miles picked up smoking last year following a stressful deployment and a series of personal setbacks. Miles said he has met some of his closest friends on the smoking deck. The 21-year-old said it’ll take a lot more than a brochure or statistics to get him to quit, though he is looking to cut back from his pack per day.

“This sort of thing might be helpful for someone who is looking to quit,” Miles said of the educational campaign. “That’s not me. Right now, I don’t feel like I have a good reason to stop smoking.”

Mittelman acknowledged it can be difficult to grab the attention of 18- to 20-year-olds, as evidenced by a couple of young sailors in blue fatigues who dozed off during the hourlong ceremony Tuesday.

“Kids are kids,” Mittelman said. “It doesn’t surprise me when kids do what their peer groups are doing. What is most rewarding, though, and this is not surprising, is that when our sailors and Marines see the right way to go, they oftentimes make the correct decisions, and then they become the example for their own friends.”

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